ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — On a Saturday night in Valencia, hundreds of cars snaked around the Six Flags Magic Mountain parking lot, waiting to enter the theme park.
On the same day in Orange County, thousands of visitors flocked to both Disney California Adventure’s Buena Vista Street and Knott’s Berry Farm.
Further down south, Legoland in Carlsbad and Sea World in San Diego unveiled their latest holiday offerings and welcomed visitors into their respective parks.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has prohibited theme parks from fully reopening across the state, but theme park operators are finding other ways to bring in the crowds, sans the rides.
Six Flags Magic Mountain dressed up its land with holiday décor and music throughout its 262-acre theme park for visitors to drive through. The Holiday in the Park Drive-Thru Experience is akin to driving through a large neighborhood with homes dressed with tons of Christmas lights, except visitors are actually inside the Magic Mountain theme park. The exterior of the Hall of Justice and Goliath, among many other rides, was lit up for the holiday experience.
Knott’s Berry Farm is offering Knott’s Taste of Merry Farm, an outdoor dining experience. Visitors are able to walk around a spruced up festive Ghost town, Calico, and other parts of the Western-themed park. The event offers more than 60 unique food and drinks, spread out around the park.
Disney extended its Downtown Disney retail strip into Disney California Adventure’s Buena Vista Street. This is the first-time visitors had a chance to walk into a Disneyland Resort theme park since the pandemic closed the parks in March. Buena Vista is also dressed up with holiday décor and a new outdoor dining setup.
In San Diego this past weekend, Legoland kicked off a holiday event that features a 30-foot fully decorated Lego Christmas tree, socially distanced meet-and-greet with Lego characters, and other activities.
Additionally, Sea World has a month-long Christmas celebration featuring a sea-themed Christmas tree, holiday lights, and animal exhibits.
"The governor mentioned this before, that theme parks are a complex business," said Robert Niles, the editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. "While parks are not allowed to reopen in its full form, they are legally able to operate their dining service and retail, and as a walk through museum and exhibit and that sort of thing."
Niles added that this is a way for theme parks to remain relevant amid the pandemic.
"Parks need some money coming in to keep business viable in the long-term," said Niles.
The new theme park offerings and workaround come amid a recent spike in coronavirus cases throughout the state. Newsom last week issued a month-long curfew prohibiting non-essential work and gatherings from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in high-risk counties as a way to prevent the spread in a state that has more than 1.14 million cases and 18,768 deaths as of Tuesday. The curfew began last Saturday and will remain in effect until December 21.
Orange and Los Angeles counties in recent days have hit a record number of daily cases.
Theme parks have remained closed since the pandemic hit in mid-March as a way to prevent the spread. The governor has prevented large theme parks such as Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Knott's Berry Farm from fully reopening until each park's home county is in the state's least restrictive yellow tier. Orange and Los Angeles counties are in the most restrictive purple tier. Many health officials don't expect them to enter yellow until mid-next year.
The theme park reopening issue has been a contentious affair between the governor's health office, theme park operators, and businesses that rely on theme park visitors for their own business.
For theme park enthusiasts, this past weekend allowed them to do something that they've been waiting for. Southern California, after all, is considered the theme park capital of the world. Locals are among the millions of visitors every year who visit Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Legoland, and more.
Disney and other theme park operators said they have taken every precaution to keep their visitors safe. Ultimately, it will be up to the consumers to decide whether they should risk visiting a theme park during this time, Niles explained.
"The parks are going to do whatever they can to keep business relevant, and if they try something and no one shows up, then they'll move on," Niles said. "If it's selling out, then there's a demand, and people feel safe in that environment."
Roland Abalos Jr. of Burbank hadn't visited a theme park since February and went to Knott’s Taste of Merry Farm this past weekend.
“It felt good,” he said. “There were no rides, but it felt great. We are all tired of this lockdown, and it was nice to be in that Christmas and festive mood. It helped bring the holidays to life.”
Abalos Jr. said he and his wife took precautions while in the theme park. They wore masks, carried hand sanitizers, and always stayed six feet apart from other guests who were walking around.
“We took the responsibility to keep ourselves healthy,” he said. “Knott’s did a great job. We noticed every time someone got up to leave a table, there was always a worker there immediately wiping down that table, spraying and sanitizing it to make sure it’s clean and safe.”
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Jon Hale of Brea, an annual Disney pass holder, visited Disney California Adventure's Buena Vista Street on Monday. Hale is known for having ridden Radiator Springs Racers more than 10,000 times but hasn’t visited Disney California Adventure since March, a week before the pandemic closed it down.
"It’s pretty amazing," he said. "I didn’t realize how much I missed the park."
Hale added that he got misty-eyed when he saw the sign for Radiator Spring Racers.
“I missed the ride so much,” he said.
Hale also commended Disney for taking strict precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Upon entering Downtown Disney, he had to get his temperature check and wear a mask. There were hand sanitizing and handwashing stations throughout the area, and cast members (Disney’s word for employees) were keeping track and monitoring guests coming in and going out of stores.
“They are on top of it,” said Hale, who plans to visit Buena Vista Street more throughout the holidays. “I felt safer there than going to a Walmart.”